B is for Brother

I was visiting my mom and sister in Edmonton, Canada, when I got the news. It was the day after Christmas, and the West Edmonton Mall, where my sister and I were spending the afternoon to distract ourselves, was crowded.

Our brother had been taken to the hospital the day before because he was not well. My mom, sister, and I could see this when we Face Timed him Christmas morning. My sister-in-law brought him to the emergency room in Idaho Falls, and he was admitted immediately. His liver was failing.

The news from Idaho got worse and worse as the hours passed, and my mind was shadowed with what if thoughts. But we didn’t really expect him to die. He was only 40 years old! Sure, he wasn’t in the best physical condition, but he had three young sons and a wife who needed him. Things like this don’t happen to us.

But it did.

The call came as I was considering a purchase in a store that doesn’t exist in the states. My sister was the one to get the news from our sister-in-law. She turned to me and said two simple but life-changing words: He’s gone.

I was in shock at first. Then the white-hot pain of irrecoverable loss seared its way into my core. I was gutted.

We abruptly left the store. Our mom, who lived within walking distance of the mall, needed us. Tears now rushed down my face as I dodged shoppers, strangers who knew nothing about my pain, looking at me as if my secret-to-them tragedy might be contagious. I wanted to fall to the ground and cry out that my brother—my baby brother and one of my best friends—was dead.

I tried to call my husband, but my US-based carrier wouldn’t connect until I was outside in the cold. My sister led the way as I followed far behind, trying to tell my husband what had happened. In my distraction, I almost walked into a man who was crossing in front of me.

Canadians are supposed to be nice, but this man’s look said, “Watch where you’re going, idiot!” I stopped, prepared to challenge him, to stone him with four-letter words. It might have felt good to take some of my anger out on this man, but he kept walking. That was a good thing, for both of us.

My hands grew numb during our walk, which was longer than my sister implied. She carries her grief differently than I. I wear my heart on my sleeve; she keeps it inside. My hands grew numb, and I was glad. I welcomed the pain, the distraction.

By the time we reached my mom’s condo, my southern California body felt nearly frozen. But that didn’t stop the nauseating disbelief and emptiness. It didn’t bring back the breath that was knocked out of me at the news. It didn’t stop the tears.

I was broken. I am broken. My brother meant the world to me. He was good. We shared a bond through our love of nature, a similar sense of humor (he was so much funnier than I am!). We worked together as team teachers at the same school for a while, and I never tired of talking to him.

My brother was loved by countless people—former students, school families, friends, co-workers. Again, he was good. He touched lives every day. His wit, combined with his non-judgemental heart made him easy to talk to.

But he struggled. Underneath his humor and his generosity was a man who was filled with anxiety, depression, and self-doubt. The grace he extended so freely to others, he rarely gave to himself. Not many people knew this side of my brother.

He felt he didn’t have much to offer, that he wasn’t able to impact people in a positive way. This bothered him greatly. He passed on with these doubts. One thing that comforts me is that I know he now knows how much his life mattered to everyone who knew him. He now knows how loved he was.

We had a memorial service planned for my brother. It has been postponed because of the pandemic. As is natural, the loss of my brother has taken a back seat at the moment as Covid-19 slithers its way into countries, cities, communities, and families around the world.

Andrew was a father, husband, son, uncle, brother-in-law, cousin, friend, teacher, counselor, mentor. He was my brother. He will always be my brother, and for that I have been eternally blessed.

The Music Played

Three years ago, I lay curled up on the couch in our living room, covered in an icy blanket of hopelessness and depression. My dad was dying.

The hard truth about death is there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. We can only postpone it. My dad’s time had come after years of keeping it at bay, pushing it off each time it crept in like a fog, and I knew it.

What could I do?

He needs his music.

The idea, seemingly external in origin, reached in and took hold of me. I knew how important music was to him. I couldn’t stop him from dying, but I could give him one final gift—the same gift he gave me years before when we sat, poring over his record collection, listening to everything from Janis Joplin to the old-school folk music of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. I pulled myself off the couch and spent the next couple hours scouring iTunes and making a CD of music I knew he would like.

Three years ago I sat by my dad’s bed in the skilled nursing facility, talking to my mom and listening to the CD I placed into the player on the laminate wood nightstand. Together, we waited. My dad had been in a “non-aware” state for a couple weeks so my mom and I talked around him, not to him—at least until my mom needed to make a short run to her office down the road. She kissed him and told him goodbye … that she would be back soon.

I think he was waiting for that moment. I think he didn’t want to die alone, but also didn’t want to put his wife through the pain of watching him take his last breaths.

I turned up the music, which had been set to a barely audible volume and returned to my chair near the foot of his bed. I laughed when Johnny Cash repeated his famous lyrics about falling down, down, down into a growing ring of fire. That kind of imagery probably wasn’t the most comforting to a man who was about to pass from this world, into what lies beyond. I said as much to my dad while switching to the next song. We shared the same dark sense of humor, so I’m sure he didn’t mind.

During the next couple of songs, the time between each rise and fall of my dad’s chest grew longer and longer. I moved my chair next to the head of his bed and held his hand while we listened to Alison Krauss and Neil Young. I cried bawled. I wondered at times if he had taken his last breath, only to see his chest rise again. I called my brother, who was at work, and told him to call our mom.

I told my dad it was okay to go. That he had been a good dad. I thanked him for taking me fishing and camping, for always being a part of my life, for sharing his love for music with me.

I told him I loved him.

I don’t know at what point he left his body—the exact moment that he died. He left without a word, without a sign. At some point between his last breaths, he had opened his blue eyes just enough that I could see the light was gone.

He was gone.

Still, the little CD player serenaded him with the music he loved while I held his hand, tears streaming.

I smiled. I don’t know why. Maybe because he chose me to be the one to see him off; I was honored. For a moment, I felt his presence in the room. But maybe I imagined it. I like to think he stood—for the first time in years—and saw that I wept for him, for the loss of him. Then he felt … gone.

Death is a knife to those left behind, cutting deep, leaving scars that heal slowly. But, just like music, the memories play on.

 

Xenodochial (R.I.P. Rocco)

Xenodochial is an adjective that mroccotuxeans “friendly to strangers.” At least that’s what http://adjectivesstarting.com/ claims.

My go-to source for most things word related, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, doesn’t recognize that form of the word so I can’t say for sure it exists. But I’m going to use it because it works for what I want to write about. Because two days ago it was “X” day for the A-Z Blog Challenge.  

Because two days ago, we had to say good-bye to our sweet Golden Retriever. 

We adopted Rocco four years ago. Even then, he had enough white fur on his face and body to tell us that he was an older pup. Still, he was energetic and healthy for most of time we had him. And, like most Golden Retrievers, he loved just about everyone—friends and strangers alike.

A few months ago, things changed. His health and vitality began to decline until finally his suffering, his struggle to breathe and eat, became too much.

It was a gloomy, atypical rainy day in San Diego County when we gathered around Rocco as a family, stroked his once-golden fur, and said tearful good-byes to our faithful friend. We were there when he took his last breath.

I couldn’t help but think of the day—two years ago—I sat by my dad’s bedside, held his once-strong hand, and sobbed as I told him how much I loved him. I was there when the first man I ever loved took his last breath.

In Rocco’s final moments, he lifted his head and looked toward the door of the vet’s office. Maybe it was a normal reaction. Maybe he noticed a change taking place in his body. Maybe it was electrical impulses. I prefer to think he was responding to a loving call to transition to the other side of life.

I wonder if it was my dad—who always enjoyed visits from our happy, loving dog—he heard. Maybe Rocco recognized the man who slipped him pizza crust when he thought we weren’t looking.

In any case, I know Rocco is being taken care of. I know I will see him again. I also know we will always love and miss him.

Good-bye, sweet Rocco.

drroccoroccopup

 

 

D is for Dress

DD is for Dress

I don’t wear dresses often, so when I do, I remember why I got the dress and where I wore it. I have a dress in my closet that will always have meaning for me.

Less than a year ago, I had to go to the mall to find a dress for my dad’s memorial service. I was grieving and recovering from a hysterectomy; all I wanted to do was find a dress and get home. I remember the pain I was in, both physically and emotionally, that day.

I walked into Nordstrom and saw “the dress” right away. I didn’t buy it when I saw it because I wanted to see what else was available. I was emotionally numb and moving slowly as I went from store to store, looking for something that would work for the service. It had to be comfortable and loose so that it didn’t put pressure on my surgery site. After a couple hours of searching, I ended up going back to Nordstrom and getting the dress that caught my eye as soon as I started my dress-hunting venture.

I wore it the day of my dad’s service; it was what I wore when I got up in front of a bunch of people I didn’t know and bawled as I shared my memories of my dad and what he meant to me.

Yesterday, I wore the dress again. This time I wore it to a “celebration of life” get-together for my Aunt Sheila, who passed away last month. I didn’t have the honor of knowing my aunt for very long. I only recently reconnected with my mom’s side of the family. I immediately felt accepted by her. I’m not used to that and it meant a lot to me.

Now, when I look at the dress hanging in my closet, I will remember my dad. I will remember my aunt. I will be reminded how fleeting life is and to prioritize what matters.

Through a Mirror Darkly

My First Independently Published Book & Why I Wrote It

Through a Mirror Darkly is a short story I wrote under my pen name a couple months ago. I self-published it last month through Amazon. I wrote it originally for an anthology that was published this month. It has been categorized as a horror story, but it’s more than that.

When I think of horror stories, I think of crazy, knife-carrying clowns with fangs chasing a group of horny teenagers at a deserted camp. Through a Mirror Darkly has a paranormal element to it, but it’s also very loosely based on my own experiences with familial and personal depression.

When I wrote it, I didn’t think it would end up being therapeutic for me, but it was. I never had a chance to say goodbye to my mom when she died. I hadn’t seen her in over 35 years. After my parents separated, she tried to kill herself. I was barely seven when I heard her crying out from the other room. To this day, the memory of finding my mom on the floor, begging for help wrenches my heart.

After that, my dad got custody of my brother, sisters, and me. She was eventually released from the hospital and given visitation rights every other weekend. Despite her therapies and medications, she was not emotionally healthy and tried a few more times to take her own life.

Eventually, she stopped coming to pick us up for our weekends. The last time I saw her, I was nine years old. I never really missed her… maybe because her withdrawal from our lives was so gradual. Maybe it was because I was such a daddy’s girl. The only thing I was ever angry about was having to find her the first time she attempted suicide. More than anything, I hated the pity people would express when they found out I didn’t have a mom.

Looking back, I realize I spent my life in the shadow of my mom’s suicide attempts and depression. I was adamant that I would not be like her. I would never be weak like I thought she must have been. When I had my first child, I was even more resolved that I would be nothing like her. And I was a great mom: attentive, patient, happy, ambitious. For the first time, I resented her for leaving her children because I could not understand how anyone could do that.

Then, I had my second child. I knew something was wrong in my last trimester. I grew depressed, anxious, and obsessed about irrational things. I told nobody and figured it would go away after I got to hold my baby in my arms, but it only got worse. He seemed to cry all the time, he was a horrible nurser, and nobody but me could hold him. At the same time, my three year old demanded my attention.

I sank into a dark place. I found myself resenting my baby. I started having anxiety attacks when he would cry. I remember wondering if I could place him for adoption. I was sure someone would be a better parent to him. I didn’t want to admit I was “weak” like my mom. I spent my life being everything she wasn’t. I spent my life not being what she was.

Around this time, Brooke Shields wrote a book about her experience with postpartum depression called Down Came the Rain. I do not know where I would be if that book hadn’t ended up in my hands. As I read about her depression, I realized something: this beautiful, intelligent, talented woman was admitting she needed help overcoming her depression.

I decided that was where I would be different from my mom. I would get help before it was too late. I had to be strong enough to admit that I was weak. I was ashamed and embarrassed, but I did seek help because of my love for my boys. With the help of antidepressants, I became more like the “old” me again. I still struggle with depression and anxiety, and I still take medication for it.

When I found out my mom passed away a couple years ago, I felt I needed to do something to “release” her… to let her know I finally understood her. I needed to let her know that she had my forgiveness.

My goodbyes to her were put on the back burner, however. The same day I learned of her passing, my dad was undergoing surgery. Complications arose and he almost died. From that time on, his health deteriorated. He almost died several times in the months that followed. Emotionally, I couldn’t focus on my mom’s death. My dad had priority. He died five months ago and I miss him terribly. I always thought my first book would be dedicated to him, but as the story, Through a Mirror Darkly, wrote itself, I realized it was a book for my mom. It was my way to say goodbye, to let her go with my forgiveness.

I’ve always found comfort in writing, and this story was no different. It also brought healing. I believe in the afterlife. I believe she needed to know that she is forgiven. I feel I needed to tell her this for her sake and mine. I hope she has finally found peace and wholeness.

If you are interested in the fictional account of my story, you can get it on Amazon. It’s less than a buck and if you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for free. If you do read it, please leave a review on Amazon. Reviews help independent authors like me. Thank you!51AiuzkwVtL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)

Me & Bobby McGee

Remembering my dad who passed away May 9, 2014

In my last post, I shared how some of my favorite memories were of fishing with my dad. Other memories I hold close to my heart involve music. My stepmother was a registered nurse when I was young. Every other weekend, she would work the “swing shift” at the hospital. That meant she would be working from 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., but to my brother and me, it meant we would have our dad all to ourselves from the time he got off work until we went to bed.

We looked so forward to those Fridays! He was more lenient than my stepmother, so we got to stay up later, eat dessert, and simply relax more. I don’t remember everything about those evenings with my dad, but what I do remember left its imprint on my soul. In the evening, my brother and I would sit with my dad and listen to his old records. He had a good-sized collection of albums. He had an eclectic taste in music. Classical music, folk, rock. Some of the artists in his collection included Bob Dylan, The Chad Mitchell Trio, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Simon & Garfunkel, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Janis Joplin.

He would tell us about each artist… their backgrounds, where he got to see them perform live, and about the songs they wrote. I especially loved the folk music, Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin. My very favorite song was Joplin’s version of “Me & Bobby McGee.” My dad had seen Janis Joplin in concert, so I got to hear about that. He explained Kris Kristofferson wrote the song, which was funny to me because I only knew of him as an actor.  To this day, I can’t hear the song “Me & Bobby McGee” without thinking of those precious moments with my dad.

I have no doubt my love for music– all kinds of music– is due to my dad’s influence. I will forever be grateful for this wonderful gift.

Remembering Dad- Fish Tales

This afternoon I sat at my dad’s bedside, crying as I watched him take last breath. I’m broken-hearted right now and feel like writing about the man who meant the world to me. I’ll start here…

I was the epitome of a “daddy’s girl” growing up. In my eyes, Dad could do nothing wrong. I laughed at his silly jokes when nobody else would, I worried about him, I loved to spend time with him… he was my hero. He was the only one in my young life who didn’t walk out on me.

One of my most favorite things to do with my dad was fishing. He showed me how to cast and how to bait the hook.  Well, he did the worms… I couldn’t bring myself to pierce the cute, little worms with a hook. He assured me the worms couldn’t feel it and that they could breathe under water. I believed him, of course. My dad knew everything.

He showed me how to reel a fish in, but always took the hook out of the fish’s mouth for me since I was too squeamish to do it. Some of my fondest memories in life involve sitting with my dad, fishing pole in hand, eating Red Hots (he always got a box for me when we’d go fishing), and waiting for the fish to bite.

One day in second or third grade, I was about to get on the bus after school to go home, when I saw my dad waving at me from across the street of the school. He had gotten off work early and decided to surprise me by taking me fishing. We had a great time. We rented a boat and went out on the lake. I, of course, had my Red Hots and we fished until the sun started to set. To this day, I don’t know why he chose just me to go with him. I have a brother who is only a year and a half older than me. The only thing I can figure is that he was worried about me. In spite of my dad’s love, my early years were filled with a lot of sadness. Maybe he saw something in me that alerted him to the fact that I needed some one-on-one time with him.

There was only one not-so-great part of that day– for some reason, my dad failed to mention to my sisters that he was going to pick me up from school and take me out on the lake. My three older sisters were semi-responsible for my brother and me when we got home from school. When I failed to get off the bus with the rest of the neighborhood kids, they were in a panic. This was before cell phones so they had no way to contact my dad. I think my stepmother was working that day. I don’t know if they tried to call her. My nearly hysterical sisters were a couple minutes shy of calling the police to report me missing, when my dad and I showed up at the house. I was all smiles, but I remember my dad apologizing profusely for not letting my sisters know.

I still get a chuckle when I think of that day. It obviously meant a lot to me because it is such a vivid memory and I hold it dear. My dad– my childhood hero– created that memory. I love him for this gift.